The Translocation of Useful Trees in African Prehistory

  • Roger BlenchEmail author


Agriculture in Africa is usually conceptualised as beginning in a distinct era with specific indicators of early plant domestication. However, as research on African vegetation evolves, it is increasingly clear that the identification, use and subsequent translocation of trees and other woody plants constituted a major process in the transformation of the African landscapes far earlier than agriculture proper. Indeed some authors now date this to as early as 10,000 years ago. The paper argues that tree translocation can occur through a number of inter-related processes, which are exemplified in the text. It focuses on two species in particular, the baobab and the wild date-palm, Phoenix reclinata, which have anthropic distributions. The paper discusses methodology of identifying such tree species, and suggests that African vegetation has been manipulated in ways comparable to early domestication in the Amazon and the Pacific. It also notes that these processes continue with the spread of fruit and timber species in the modern era.


Adansonia digitata Trees Translocation Wild date-palm Woody vegetation 



This paper was first presented at the 8th International Workshop for African Archaeobotany, Modena, Italy, 23–26 June 2015. However, its genesis was following an Ethnoscience Summer School in Libreville, Gabon, in 2013 hosted by Patrick Mougiama-Dauda. I would like to thank Charles Doumenge, CIRAD, Montpellier and Charles Clement, INPA, Manaus, for discussions underlying the general idea. Thanks to the editors and two referees for suggestions and corrections.


  1. Albert RM, Bamford MK, Cabanes D (2009) Palaeoecological significance of palms at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, based on phytolith remains. Quatern Int 193(1):41–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Awono A, Ndoye O, Schreckenberg K et al (2002) Production and marketing of safou (Dacryodes edulis) in Cameroon and internationally: market development issues. For Trees Livelihoods 12(1–2):125–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barrau J (1956) Plantes alimentaires de base des Mélanésiens. J Agri Trop Bot Appl 3(1–2):32–49Google Scholar
  4. Bell KL, Rangan H, Kull CA et al (2015) The history of introduction of the African baobab (Adansonia digitata, Malvaceae: Bombacoideae) in the Indian subcontinent. Roy Soc Open Sci, Accessed 9 Sep 2015
  5. Blench RM (1998) The diffusion of New World Cultigens in Nigeria. In: Chastenet M (ed) Plantes et paysages d’Afrique. Karthala, Paris, pp 165–210Google Scholar
  6. Blench RM (2003) The movement of cultivated plants between Africa and India in prehistory. In: Neumann K, Butler A, Kahlheber S (eds) Food, fuel and fields: progress in African Archaeobotany. Heinrich-Barth-Institut, Köln, pp 273–292Google Scholar
  7. Blench RM (2005) Fruits and arboriculture in the Indo-Pacific region. Bull Indo Pac Pre Hi 24:31–50Google Scholar
  8. Blench RM (2007a) Using linguistics to reconstruct African subsistence systems: comparing crop names to trees and livestock. In: Denham TP, Iriarte J, Vrydaghs L (eds) Rethinking Agriculture. Archaeological and ethnoarchaeological perspectives. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, p. 408-438Google Scholar
  9. Blench RM (2007b) The intertwined history of the silk-cotton and baobab in West Africa. In: Cappers RTJ (ed) Fields of Change. Progress in African archaeobotany. Barkhuis, Groningen, p. 1-20Google Scholar
  10. Blench RM (2008) A history of fruits on the SE Asian mainland. In: Osada T, Uesugi A (eds) Occasional Paper 4: Linguistics, archaeology and the human past. Indus Project, research institute for humanity and nature, Kyoto, pp 115–137Google Scholar
  11. Blench RM (2012) Two vanished African maritime traditions and a parallel from South America. Afr Archaeol Rev 29:273. Scholar
  12. Blench RM (2013) Was there once an arc of vegeculture linking Melanesia with Northeast India? In: Summerhayes GR, Buckley H (eds) Pacific Archaeology: Documenting the Past 50,000 Years: Papers from the 2011 Lapita pacific archaeology conference. University of Otago Studies in Archaeology 25. Otago University Press, Otago, pp 1–16Google Scholar
  13. Blench RM (2014) New reconstructions of West African economic plants. In: Adelberger J, Leger R (eds) Language and history in the light of reconstructions. FAB 22 (2010). Rüdiger Köppe, Köln, pp 111–149Google Scholar
  14. Blench RM (2016) Reconstructing African agrarian prehistory by combining different sources of evidence: methodological considerations and examples for west African economic plants. In: Thanheiser U (ed) News from the past: Progress in African archaeobotany. Proceedings of the 7th International Workshop on African Archaeobotany in Vienna, 2–5 July 2012. Barkhuis, Groningen, pp 13–26Google Scholar
  15. Bostoen K (2005) A diachronic onomasiological approach to early Bantu oil palm vocabulary. Studies in African. Linguistics 34(2):143–188Google Scholar
  16. Bostoen K (2014) Wild trees in the subsistence economy of early Bantu speech communities: a historical-linguistic approach. In: Stevens CJ, Nixon S, Murray MA et al (eds) African Flora, Past Cultures and Archaeo-botany. Proceedings of the fifth international workshop for African Archaeobotany, London, 3–5 July, 2006. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, pp 129–140Google Scholar
  17. Bostoen K, Grollemund R, Koni Muluwa J (2013) Climate-induced vegetation dynamics and the Bantu expansion: evidence from Bantu names for pioneer trees (Elaeis guineensis, Canarium schweinfurthii and Musanga cecropioides). C R Geosci 345:336–349CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Burkill HM (1997) The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. Families M-R Royal Botanic Gardens, KewGoogle Scholar
  19. Busson F (1965) Plantes alimentaires de L’Ouest Africain. Ministère de la Coopération, ParisGoogle Scholar
  20. Chevalier A (1949) Nouvelles observations sur les arbres à kapok de l’Ouest Africain. Rev Int Bot Appl Agr Trop 321(2):377–385Google Scholar
  21. Clement CR, Denevan WM, Heckenberger MJ et al (2015) The domestication of Amazonia before European conquest. Proc R Soc B 282.
  22. Connell BA (1998) Linguistic evidence for the development of yam and palm culture among the Delta Cross River peoples of Southeastern Nigeria. In: Blench RM, Spriggs M (eds) Archaeology and language II. Routledge, London, pp 324–365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. D’Andrea AC, Logan AL, Watson DJ (2006) Oil palm and prehistoric subsistence in tropical West Africa. J Afr Archaeol 4(2):195–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Dalziel JM (1937) The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. Crown Agents, LondonGoogle Scholar
  25. Drake NA, Blench RM (2017) Reconceptualising the palaeozoogeography of the Sahara and the dispersal of modern humans. In: Boivin N, Crassard R, Petraglia, M (eds) Human dispersal and species movement: from prehistory to the present (pp 119–143). Cambridge, Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  26. Duvall CS (2007) Human settlement and baobab distribution in south-western Mali. J Biogeogr 34(11):1947–1961CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Guthrie M (1967–71) Comparative Bantu: an introduction to comparative linguistics and prehistory of the Bantu languages. 4 vols. Gregg International Publishers, FarnboroughGoogle Scholar
  28. Hall JB, Aebischer DP, Tomlinson HF et al (1996) Vitellaria paradoxa: a monograph. School of Agricultural and Forest Sciences 8. University of Wales, BangorGoogle Scholar
  29. Kahlheber S (1999) Indications for Agroforestry. In: Van Der Veen M (ed) The exploitation of plant resources in ancient Africa. Kluwer Academic, New York, pp 89–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kinnaird MF (1992) Competition for a forest palm: use of Phoenix reclinata by human and nonhuman primates. Conserv Biol 6(1):101–107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kondo T, Crisp MD, Linde C et al (2012) Not an ancient relic: the endemic Livistona palms of arid central Australia could have been introduced by humans. Proc R Soc B 279(1738):2652–2661CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Kyle Latinis D (2000) The development of subsistence models for Island Southeast Asia and Near Oceania: the nature and role of arboriculture and arboreal-based economies. World Archaeol 32(1):41–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Leakey RRB, Atangana AR, Kengni E et al (2002) Domestication of Dacryodes edulis in West and Central Africa: Characterisation of genetic variation. For Trees Livelihoods 12(1–2):57–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Logan AL, D’Andrea AC (2012) Oil palm, arboriculture, and changing subsistence practices during Kintampo times (3600–3200 BP, Ghana). Quatern Int 249:63–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Maundu PM, Ngugi GW, Kabuye CH (1999) Traditional food plants of Kenya. Kenya resource centre for indigenous knowledge, National Museums of Kenya, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  36. Morin-Rivat J, Fayolle A, Gillet JF et al (2014) New evidence of human activities during the Holocene in the lowland forests of the Northern Congo Basin. Radiocarbon 56(1):209–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Neumann K, Kalheber S, Uebel D (1998) Remains of woody plants from Saouga, a medieval west African village. Veg Hist Archaeobot 7:57–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Oas SE, D’Andrea AC, Watson DJ (2015) 10,000 year history of plant use at Bosumpra Cave. Ghana. Veg Hist Archaeobot 24(5):635–653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Oslisly R, Bentaleb I, Favier C et al (2013a) West Central African peoples: survey of radiocarbon dates over the past 5000 years. Radiocarbon 55(2–3):1377–1382CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Oslisly R, White L, Bentaleb I et al (2013b) Climatic and cultural changes in the west Congo Basin forests over the past 5000 years. Philos T Roy Soc B 368(1625). Scholar
  41. Piperno DR, McMichael C, Bush MB (2015) Amazonia and the Anthropocene: What was the spatial extent and intensity of human landscape modification in the Amazon Basin at the end of prehistory? Holocene 25:1588–1597. Scholar
  42. Raponda-Walker A, Sillans R (1961) Les plantes utiles du Gabon. Le Chevalier, ParisGoogle Scholar
  43. Rodin RJ (1985) The ethnobotany of the Kwanyama Ovambos. Monographs in systematic botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden (USA). Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. LouisGoogle Scholar
  44. Ruffo CK, Birnie A, Tengnäs B (2002) Edible wild plants of Tanzania. Regional Land Management Unit/Sida, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  45. Vivien J, Faure JJ (2011a) Arbres des forêts denses d’Afrique centrale. CTA, Saint BerthevinGoogle Scholar
  46. Vivien J, Faure JJ (2011b) Fruitiers sauvages d’Afrique (espèces du Cameroun). CTA, Saint BerthevinGoogle Scholar
  47. Walter AE, Sam C (1999) Fruits d’Océanie. Paris: IRD Also (2002. Fruits of Oceania. [trans. P. Ferrar] Paris, ACIAR & Canberra, IRDGoogle Scholar
  48. Wickens GE, Lowe P (2008) Baobabs—Pachycauls of Africa. Madagascar & Australia, Springer, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wild HA, Biegel HM, Mavi S (1972) Rhodesian dictionary of African and English plant names. Rhodesia Government Printer, SalisburyGoogle Scholar
  50. Williamson K (1993) Linguistic evidence for the use of some tree and tuber food plants in Southern Nigeria. In: Andah B, Okpoko A, Shaw T et al (eds) The Archaeology of Africa. Food, Metals and Towns. Routledge, London, pp 104–116Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations